It would have been about 1:00 in the afternoon on a weekday in 1970…
…in an opera house…
…in Lexington, Kentucky.
Why was I there?
Was it to see a production of Carmen, or Madama Butterfly, or Rigoletto?
I was there for the weekday bargain matinée at the Opera House Movie House on a fairly sketchy block of North Broadway. For a $1.50 I was settling in for a cinema mini-festival of the Barbra Streisand/Jack Nicholson classic; On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (she sang, he didn’t…thank God) followed by Waterloo featuring Rod Steiger and Christopher Plummer in the mud (neither sang as I recall…thank God).
The theme of this film pairing is strikingly apparent; tedious films employing and contrasting singing and cannon fire as mediums for selling a ticket or two…and maybe a tub of Buttercup Popcorn.
Frankly, I don’t recall much of the afternoon that was indelible in an uplifting way. I recall a long afternoon of affordable and forgettable flicks. I recall dimness, not just in the screening room, but in the lobby (skimping on lighting – a double savings; lower electric bills and less spent on actual housekeeping). I recall passing on the Buttercup offerings; the dim lighting couldn’t obscure the sharp, refinery whiff emanating from the butter(?)-dispensing mechanism. I recall the occasional skittering noises of the legendary rodent cleaning crew in the dark rows of the screening room celebrating the discarded remains of the Buttercup offerings.
You get what you pay for.
Plus Yves Montand and Ivo Garrano…and Mickey and Jerry (without Tom).
Well…that was then.
Eight years later, at age 27, I’m playing the 70+ year old Grandpa in Studio Players’ production of You Can’t Take It With You on the Opera House stage – same building. The seats are new. The balconies and boxes are gilded and populated with Lexington theater-goers. The lights are bright. The lobby, halls, staircases, carpets, and aisles are proudly pristine. No Buttercup products are in sight (or in smell).
In the 70’s, the Opera House was attacked by ice storms, gravity, and old age. The wrecking ball loomed.
The city of Lexington and a group called The Opera House Fund said “No.”
A serious architect, and a serious Lexington, and a serious Opera House Fund (thank you Linda Carey and W. T. Young) redesigned and restored the structure – not to a museum roadside attraction, but to a thriving driver of Central Kentucky’s performing arts community.
A year after the success of You Can’t Take It With You, I played a deliciously young and foolish Cornelius in Studio Player’s production of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker in a Saturday afternoon performance to 54 (count ‘em!) attendees in a house that seats about a thousand. Another fairly grim afternoon in the Opera House, but at least the grimness was in striving for something good, not in hygiene or affordability.
I should mention here that in both of these shows I got to work with my friend Paul Thomas. Paul has retired a myriad of times from the teaching profession and is now the House Manager of the Opera House. I believe the Opera House muckety-mucks value his participation, but are unaware that his best and highest use is ON-stage, not off. Such is fickle fame.
In 1981, I urged everyone to “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” in Lexington Musical Theatre’s production of Guys and Dolls. This was a notable production for Paul’s vocal exploration of musical scales of which Schoenberg never dreamed.
In 1982, Paul and I played in Brigadoon, also for Lexington Musical Theatre. Paul demonstrated a technique for holding a gun that the NRA is still trying to explain and justify.
Both of these edifying experiences were on the Opera House stage.
In 1987, I had the totaling fulfilling experience of playing Dr. Watson to my friend Eric Johnson’s Sherlock Holmes in the world premiere of my friend Chuck Pogue’s luscious script; The Ebony Ape, on the Opera House stage in an Actor’s Guild production. A two-story set, perfect and beautiful costumes, Fred Foster, Julieanne Pogue, Martha Campbell, Rick Scircle, Matt Regan…a glorious time for Mrs. Leasor’s little boy.
This was also on the Opera House stage…thank you very much.
A year later, in The King and I (a Lexington Musical Theatre production directed by my friend, Ralph Pate), Janie and I appeared in our one and only show together. She was lithe and lovely. I was…not so much, but I got to sing some beautiful songs for which I was not particularly suited (not, alas, an uncommon occurrence).
This was also on the Opera House stage. Sorry…but look at Janie! Isn’t she fine?
…skip ahead with me to 2006.
I’m asked to play the Star Keeper in the University of Kentucky Opera Theater’s production of Carousel at (you guessed it) the Opera House.
Well, I guess I could.
I walk out on the Opera House stage, count the stars – the stars!– , revive the protagonist and inspire him to return to life and assure his daughter that she’ll “Never Walk Alone.”
This is a far cry from 1970 and Waterloo and…
“On a clear day, rise and look around you and you’ll see who you are.
On a clear day, how it will astound you that the glow of your being outshines every star.
You’ll be part of every mountain, sea, and shore.
You can hear from far and near the words you’ve never heard before.”
…not so far.